For many tourists traveling to Cuba for the first time, visiting the island’s famous paladares – the Cuban name for the more than 1700 private restaurants that have recently opened up to cater to their appetite – is often talked about as an absolute must. Paladares, in fact, are praised not only for the high-quality cuisine they offer but also for their unique ambience, as they are located inside homes and residential buildings that one would hardly imagine house top-rated culinary establishments. Yet while tourists enjoy their mojitos, piña coladas, and an assortment of dishes at these restaurants, they might be unaware of how much work actually goes into getting even the most basic items – like garlic or potatoes – on their plates.
“With so many restaurants opening up, finding fresh food in Havana can be really complicated,” Giselle, a manager at the Café Laurent paladar in Havana, said. “You need to juggle sometimes to find produce.”
Finding food has been a central issue for Cubans for decades, in fact. The government’s inefficient farming systems have consistently failed to meet demand, while the island’s food supplies continue to be crippled by the U.S. embargo. Yet the flock of hungry tourists arriving to the island in recent years, eager to have a go at Cuban cuisine, have thrown Cuba’s fragile food system even more off balance. Prices have soared, as private restaurants and hotels have begun competing with Cuban households for the already scarce fresh produce. For many Cubans – who earn an average salary of 25 dollars a month – even basic staples like tomatoes or garlic have quickly become unaffordable luxuries.
“If you are a tourist, maybe you can afford to buy food,” Angela, a 57-year-old peanut vendor said while sitting in a quiet park in Havana. “But for a Cuban like me, it’s too expensive. That is Cuba’s biggest problem, and it’s only going to get worse.”
Cuba’s highly complex and bureaucratic system for food distribution seems to only be adding to the problem. The least expensive goods can be found at state-run markets, where the government has set low price caps to protect consumers from rent-seeking food suppliers and vendors that look to profit at the populations expense – but the quality and variety is equally low. The price controls, in fact, seem to have provided incentives to farmers to instead sell their best quality produce to private food markets who are allowed to set higher prices, or to the black market, to turn a higher profit. The prices, however, are largely out of reach for the average Cuban.
“Our customers here are mostly tourists and the private restaurants,” Evangelina, a vendor at a commercial market in Havana, said. In front of her she has arranged several boxes of plump strawberries. Each sells for ten dollars, roughly equivalent to a monthly state pension for a retiree. As a woman passes by and scoffs at the exorbitant price, Evangelina only raises her eyebrows. “Only those with money can afford to buy food here,” she said.
Meanwhile at a state-run market in Havana, Ramón, an 82-year-old vendor pointed to the dusty and half empty shelves of produce stacked across one of the walls. “This used to be a commercial market, but then the State took it over and left it like this,” he said. “We haven’t seen garlic here in a year and a half.”
This growing inequality, however, is far out of sight for tourists arriving to Cuba. As they drink and dine at the beautifully decorated paladares, the struggles to put luxurious produce on their plates remains yet another hidden facet of daily Cuban life.ᐧ
Written by Ximena Carranza Risco